Welcome to Part Two of our insider series on scouting in the MLS (for Part One, The role of the scout in MLS, click here).
This edition looks at the emphasis MLS clubs are placing on Academies. How do scouts support this focus? What do they look for? What of the NCAA? All these and more as I revisit my conversation with Matt Martin, Regional Scout for Sporting Kansas City and Instructor with Sports Management Worldwide.
With the MLS mandate for each club to have an Academy, it would appear that scouting has become more complex as you look at a broader age group. Does the Academy model change your focus?
The process of assessing local youth players is accomplished primarily by the respective team's Academy staff and here is why: As the rules are now - Sporting KC cannot recruit a player for its academy who lives outside their territory and so it is (in General) for all of MLS. As a West Coast Scout for Sporting KC I cannot go out to a youth tournament or game and offer to "hi-jack" a kid back to KC's Academy, so it is not yet part of our requirement. Some MLS clubs, such as Chicago have academies outside their immediate area; The Fire have an Academy in Louisiana. The rules are changing so that recruitment tomorrow may be different from today. The easiest answer is to say the definition of a "Homegrown player" is defined case by case. In general the player needs to have been a part of the academy before attending college and there are specific rules that define what "attendance" is.
Beyond that, in general US Labor Laws make entering into binding contracts with US Youth very difficult. Therefore a team can lose their best youth academy products when foreign clubs swoop in and offer big money to a kid (& his family) to leave an MLS academy before the kid is old enough to commit to a contract with MLS. The MLS side may have trained a player for years - but, no sale, no transfer fee, FREE! Thank you MLS! Thank you MLS Club!..ouch... So you wonder why US teams aren't spending big money on academies...why growth is incremental...because MLS Clubs don't own and therefore cannot readily SELL the kids they are spending so much money developing.
Whereas baseball can wait until a prospect turns 17 or 18...in the world of soccer, if a kid is not sold by the time he is 14, 15 or 16, as a general rule he is not going to develop fast enough, early enough to impact in the International game. Another reality is that although we are developing more youth talent, the best 14 and 15 years olds are still behind the developmental curve of their South American and European brothers. Later, when our kids go to Europe they find themselves in need of 2 to 3 years of adjustment and refinement, so most graduating seniors from college who show great ability and aptitude are still a couple years from being able to impact and by the time they make that step they are 24 or 25 and often have to return to the US because they are considered "too old" by developmental standards.
There are exceptions but Jay DeMerit played at a very high level (England's Championship and Premier League), from 2005 to 2007 and was not even considered for the World Cup side of 2006. It's a double edged sword - go over and get better but run the risk to go over and get forgotten. We scout better now and more and more American youth are developing in the reserves and academies of European clubs. The MLS itself is improving and the need to leave to get the best training or competition is going to lessen.
Over three years ago I scouted a sophomore in High School, and discussed him with Red Bulls and wrote a few college coaches letting them know he was one of the best I had ever seen. I can honestly say his skill at that time was on par with the best players in the draft even if he was physically too small (AT THAT TIME) to play professionally - I could see the skill and understanding of the lad and project it to the professional level. That player is in college and will be a good professional in time. The upshot is that we in the professional ranks cannot "sign" youth players we find due to a plethora of rules, including US Labor laws, NCAA Collegiate rules, and MLS internal restrictions. We lose players to teams in Mexico and overseas but its not all "bad." We also maintain balance and parity in our league and our players get to enjoy a college life...is it the best path? Not for the elite player or for everyone, but it did produce Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza, and Matt Besler among others.
Specifically, what are scouts looking for if identifying players for an Academy program? What do you look for when reviewing MLS Superdraft age players?
Were I recruiting for our academy system and when I recruit for the Draft my approach would be/is like that of my management's approach in building the side: BALANCED!
You need athletes, you need soccer players - really skilled technical players whose control is good and who tactically feel the game in an innate or organic fashion, you need kids with crazy workrates and belief - HEART!
And you need kids from your area and those who came from far away...you need attackers and defenders, you need to emphasize all 11 positions and choose all wisely - YOU need to develop the DEPTH of your roster with as much care as you develop the TOP!!! That takes scouting and devotion - commitment to excellence from the groundsmen all the way to the CEO...you can't get all of these things in each player but you can find all of these things IN OUR TEAM.
It's not always easy to describe but when I really like a kid I have no problem telling his coach, "I can see Joe XXXXX playing in our side!"
You need variety and DIVERSITY and you need to get them all playing a style where they support each other and break the other team's will to play; the collective will breaks the opposition's will.
On our Sporting KC roster we have Brazilians, a Frenchman, a Haitian, a Spaniard, a Brit, Middle-Eastern-American, and lots of kids from Kansas City...we have internationals and we have college kids, we have mean defenders and we have elegant ball handlers. We would like more goals so we can WIN, (not just challenge for) two or three prizes each year, so we will always seek balance and equilibrium. NOW our idea of balance is going to be much more aggressive and much more athletic than most of our opposition, but our commitment to the 4-3-3 is reflective of who we are...it is not the numbers 4-3-3...it is the TOTAL COMMITMENT to our style within that system that makes us great...we are disappointed at how we were eliminated, but a US Open Cup title and 63 points is still amazing. It is the 5th best record an MLS side has managed in league history. Which is why I feel we are still growing and why it is all the more important to set standards and seek specific criteria for each position.
We can talk about and break down each position and say what we want from that position, but in the end it will be about the players themselves and how their personalities and brains guide them to fulfill Peter Vermes' vision and so it goes for me the scout.
How does the vision of the Technical Director (or GM) influence your focus?
I am kept attuned to what Peter Vermes wants, through Assistant Coach and Head Domestic Scout, John Pascarella, through information sharing and relay as well as direct discussion with Peter Vermes. Peter's vision is now part of me; my evals and assessments are based upon my "hindbrain" or "GUT" feel for what Peter wants based upon attending practices, watching video and speaking with John Pascarella on a weekly basis. When discussing foreign players I go first to Kerry Zavagnin who heads up our foreign player evaluation. This kind of direct and personal contact with the technical staff is one of our keys to success and continued growth as a scouting staff. Assistant Zoran Savic crosses over into all scouting areas working domestic and foreign suitability - there is synergy and yet scouting "labor" is divided so that as a team we are more efficient.
In my two and half years at Red Bulls I worked for 18 months under Technical Director Erik Soler. I spoke to him once and it was to shake his hand at the Draft and tell him who I was...I never heard from him what he wanted, though Jeff Agoos did convey the team's needs and requirements on a regular basis until his departure. The fact that Soler, in my opinion, did not place high value in college recruiting and relied on video analysis for Advanced Scouting made the decision for me, an external scout, to move on, an easy one. The changes do not have to be thought of in terms of right and wrong - just different.
Looking at it from Red Bulls management's view, the emphasis on foreign player acquisition was important to the success of the Red Bulls; three years in the playoffs under Soler and Backe is no small achievement, but the money spent definitely set expectations higher. Henry and Marquez were in the pipeline before Erik Soler was brought in, but when I was still with Red Bulls in the months following Jeff Agoos' departure, I looked at the non DP players acquired (guys like Tainio, Solli, and Lindpere) and tried to glean an understanding of what was wanted from a silent front office. Despite the talent in the starting side I developed concerns about the development of the depth of the roster and my own utilization and development. In my opinion the college player is essential to depth in a league where a salary (budget) means you can NOT spend millions on EVERY player especially if you have Designated Players (DPs). Likewise, utilizing the youth academy and choosing the right veterans are also pieces of the puzzle - needed to build a balanced squad.
I believe that building the bottom of the roster as smartly as you build the top gives your team staying power!
Outside of the draft, what do you look for when looking at possible discovery signings?
At Sporting Kansas City we are looking for maturity but at an age younger than much of our competition.
Case in point: two of our discoveries who have signed and have started some matches for us: Peterson Joseph (Haitian International 23 Yrs old) and Orio "Uri" Rosell (Spain 20 yrs old) are as young or younger than kids coming out of college. We want these players to fit our system and if they do well, be with us for years and years like our top college player signings.
We are bringing in foreign players to fill needs and I expect them to be a combination of young and in their prime so we continue with balance - put talent on the pitch for today and also develop more talent for the future.
It has been suggested that one of the weaknesses of the Academy model is that players graduate at U18 but may not be ready for the MLS. Can you comment on some of the challenges you see for the "not quite ready" player? Does the NCAA play a future role in helping bridge this gap?
The trend is definitely for the MLS Youth Academies to increase their productivity and provide a higher percentage of players to each MLS first team, but Colleges in the US will never be completely replaced as a means for young players to gain experience. This is because of the millions of dollars spent by the over 200 Division I colleges in terms of infrastructure and resources.
Over 12,000 fans attended a home match for University of California, Santa Barbara against one of their rivals, Cal Polytechnic State College, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly SLO). In the return match in San Luis Obispo, the attendance was over 11,000. Both capacity crowds watched 18 to 20 year olds battling in an in-state collegiate rivalry that generated and will continue to generate huge crowds every year regardless of the records of the teams involved. It is hard to imagine that being replaced by more "reserve matches" or academy matches in MLS where attendance rarely exceeds a couple hundred. My point is simple - college soccer has to be scouted because it will always provide some level of talent that has to be culled through.
There has to be a balance - You should seek to have X number of foreign players of exceptional technical ability, X number of great raw athletes, X number of young players to develop, X number of veterans to lead, X number of calm players, X number of intense ones, X number of college players, X number of academy players and X number of players from Kansas City, X number of Brazilians, or CONCACAF based players, and X number of USMNT members....no one tree can supply all that you need!
Up Next: Part Three - Scouting trades, teams and the future
Matt Martin is a Regional Scout with Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer. He joined Sporting KC in August of 2011 and scouted the Eastern seaboard before relocating to the West Coast (July 2012). He has covered collegiate, USL, and MLS matches for recruitment and advanced scouting purposes. Matt joined Sporting Kansas City after scouting for the New York Red Bulls for two and a half years. He began professionally scouting with The Scouting Network (TSN) of Birmingham, England after completion of SMWW's Soccer Scouting and Management Course in 2007. Matt is a graduate of the University of Washington, has a background in coaching athletics and has assisted at the collegiate, youth and intramural levels while attending college and while serving on as an officer in the US Air Force.
For more information on scouting and the course that Matt references, check out http://www.sportsmanagementworldwide.com/courses/soccer-management